Meet North Korea's nemesis

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Imagine North Korea’s Kim Jong-un being top of your to-do list. Welcome to the (very interesting) world of Park Geun-hye

Words: Jon Axworthy, Photos: Rex Features

Your first day in a new job is always a daunting one. There’s memorising a PA or two’s name, finding out where the postroom is and getting though that tricky first presentation.

But spare a thought for Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea, whose feet were barely under her desk before she had to deal with the nuclear ambitions of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Elected in December 2012, one week after North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile, Ms Park must have realised she wouldn’t have much time to familiarise herself with the internal phones on her first day.

In firing the rocket, the North had blatantly defied a United Nations resolution barring it from testing long-range missile technology. Then, in February, just two weeks before she took office, an unapologetic North Korea declared to the world that it had exploded a nuclear device underground.

Once she was sworn in, Ms Park wasted no time in announcing her presence to the man who sat across the 38th parallel, the demilitarised dividing line where North and South Korea have faced off for the last 60 years.

On her second day as leader, she made a high-profile speech at the memorial service to honour those killed when a South Korean naval warship, the Cheonan, was torpedoed in March 2010. The international community blamed North Korea for the attack and Ms Park used the speech to get her message across to her opposite number.

“I strongly urge North Korea to change,” she declared. “North Korea must immediately abandon its thought that nuclear weapons will protect its regime.”

ABOVE: Park Geun-hye during a press conference in Seoul in December 2012

It didn’t take long for her to get a response. Hours after the speech, the North Korean People’s Army Supreme Command issued a statement proclaiming that all missile units had been put on “the highest alert”, and were ready to strike South Korea, along with US military bases in Hawaii and Guam.

“They should be mindful,” continued the North’s statement with typical hyperbole, “that everything will be reduced to ashes and flames the moment the first attack is unleashed.”

However, her government returned Kim Jong-un’s fiery rhetoric with some of its own. Her officials stated that if North Korea continued with their provocations, the South would target missiles at the imposing statue of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in the capital Pyongyang.

The North returned fire with another statement, declaring that the North would “destroy the den of confrontation, including Cheongwadae, hotbed of all evils”. Cheongwadae, or the Blue House, is Ms Park’s presidential palace.

Not that the now 61 year old would have been shaken by such threats, for she has already experienced incidents far more personal and vicious during her journey to power. In 2006, while on the campaign trail, Ms Park was attacked with a razor blade by a man called Ji Chung-ho, and her jaw was sliced open.

The first thing she did after waking up from an operation to avoid disfigurement was to ask how the election campaign was going. She won, and was known as ‘Queen of Elections’ thereafter.

Ms Park’s scars aren’t just physical. In 1974, her mother was shot dead as she watched a speech by her husband, Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979 and the intended target of the North Korean assassin.

Park Geun-hye was a 22-year-old student at the time. She abandoned her dream of becoming a professor of engineering to stand by her father’s side as first lady, until he too was killed by his own secret service chief in 1979 (for some South Koreans, Park Chung-hee’s rule was more of a dictatorship than a presidency). She stayed out of the public eye until she was elected to the national assembly in 1998 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and left only in 2012, having announced she would run instead for president.

It is reported her house is full of pictures of her dead parents and she once wrote that she might “choose death over a life like this again”, referring to their murder. She has never married.

“She has often said that she married the country,” says Bong Youngshik, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “There were no female political role models for her and women are often marginalised in South Korea, as evidenced by the huge gender income gap [39% in 2012]. But the people see her as the living embodiment of her father, who is still the most popular leader the country has seen because he engineered its economic revival.”

ABOVE: Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang in March this year

Gender battles

Her prominence in such a patriarchal society has irked Kim Jong-un, and this resentment surfaced during the recent stand-off, when he claimed her “venomous swish of skirt” was to blame. “This is a Korean expression to describe women who don’t know their place,” explains Mr Bong.

But Ms Park is very clear where her place is, and has spent more time on Barack Obama’s call sheet than any other leader in the free world over the past few months. The two nations have been close allies since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and have been in close step in their response to North Korea’s recent provocations. They pursued a UN Security Council resolution that increased sanctions on Pyongyang and stepped up their annual joint military drills that act as a show of force to North Korea.

But this prompted Kim Jong-un to threaten to turn both countries into a “sea of fire”. When US B-2 stealth bombers appeared in South Korean airspace, he was pictured in a scene right out of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr Strangelove. Surrounded by generals, he was seen signing papers in front of a map titled ‘US mainland strike plan’ that showed missiles aimed at Washington, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Texas.

This sabre-rattling is a strategy he has inherited from his father Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea as dictator until his death in 2011, and continually manufactured aggression against what he called “imperialist” forces to unify a country suffering desperately from cyclical famine and poverty.

There are no official statistics, such is the country cloaked in secrecy, but North Korea is thought to be one of the world’s poorest nations, and the people are only kept from uprising by propaganda.

“The famines began in 1995,” says Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector now living in the US. “It began as rumour and we were told it was normal. Eventually we would witness people who had starved to death on the street. That’s when I realised that I had to get out.”

Every year, around 2,400 people flee the state, and Kim Jong-un knows he will only remain in power while he retains the backing of the people. “His nuclear power play backfired because it led to Washington and Seoul’s push for sanctions aimed at the North’s banking, travel and trade sectors,” says Bong Youngshik. “He can’t back down or people will think him weak, but the sanctions just make life harder for his people.

Jong-un’s posturing is proof that the 29 year old has chosen to follow the “military first” policy of his father, but that is only possible because he has the backing of Beijing.

North Korea’s alliance with China stems from the end of World War II, when the region was divided between the US and USSR, who each set up their own sympathetic government, with the aim of claiming the whole country as their own. This led to the 1950-53 Korean War, with China backing the North and the US the South. The war ended not in a peace treaty but in an armistice and a simmering mistrust that boiled to the surface once more in 2010.

ABOVE: Kim Jong-un inspecting the People's Army Unit 1501 in Pyongyang in March this year

Ready for war

Four months after the sinking of the Cheonan, the North fired dozens of shells at a South Korean island called Yeonpyeong, killing four people. “It’s thought that Kim Jong-il used the islands as target practice to assure his generals that his son had the stomach for war,” says Joseph Yi, assistant professor of political science at Hanyang University in Seoul. “Kim Jong-un had just been chosen as his father’s successor and was involved at the highest level. Like father, like son.”

However, it appears he has met his match in Ms Park. She is also just like her conservative father, whose economic legacy she has vowed to protect. Her election manifesto proposed a less hostile approach to the North in the hope of ending years of tension and she spoke of resuming benefits to the beleaguered country, while promising a stern response to military action.

“She knows she must restore the region’s peace to ensure financial stability,” says Joseph Yi, “so she will stand her ground.” Ms Park will have been encouraged by China’s support for the recent UN sanctions. This was followed by a significant rebuke from the North’s historically, with China’s president Xi Jinping warning, “no one should be allowed to throw the whole world into chaos for selfish gains”.

“The more she stands up to Mr Kim, the more it debases his leadership, as female adversaries are not deemed worthy of the ‘Supreme Leader’,” adds Joseph Yi. “Her gender gives her more power.”

Later this month, Ms Park will journey from the Blue House to the White House for talks with Obama. Meanwhile, the North’s missiles are in range of Seoul, while the motives of the man who commands them have yet to be fully revealed.

North Korea: 10 facts

1. For tourists, a visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument – 20-metre statues of Kim Jong-un’s late father Kim Jong-il and late grandfather, Kim Il-sung – is obligatory. Everyone visiting the statues must lay flowers and bow.

2. Kim Jong-un was schooled in Switzerland, where he reportedly developed an obsession with pizza. To disguise his identity, he pretended to be the son of the embassy chauffeur and called himself Pak-un.

3. The state controls almost everything, even its people’s haircuts. There are 10 officially sanctioned styles for men and 18 for women.

4. Kim Jong-il had another son, Kim Jong-nam, who was in line to succeed him until he was stopped at a Japanese airport trying to use a fake passport to visit Disneyland Tokyo. He was passed over and now lives in Singapore.

5. North Korea does not let camera lenses exceeding 150mm into the country. Tourists are rarely permitted to use video cameras.

6. Even though it is estimated that there are 20,000 miles of roads in the country, only military and government officials may own cars.

7. Electric power largely shuts down at night and homes that do have electricity often receive it only a few hours a day.

8. Chewing gum, eating sweets and wearing scruffy clothes in areas of national importance are regarded as disrespectful.

9. Kim Jong-un sentenced a military official, Kim Chol, to death for drinking during the 100 days of mourning for his father. He was executed with a mortar shell blast.

10. Those who did not show extreme distress during the 100 days also faced being sent to a penal camp.